Japan Part San: The Nara Period

There are sort of two ways of approaching the main draws of Honshu (Japan’s “Big Island”): go full urban and experience the modern city life, or try to capture the Japanese ancient history side of things. Luckily, MG and I allowed ourselves time for both, and I’m glad, because the two experiences could not possibly be more different.

Having already survived the neon/cherry blossom jungle of Tokyo and then escaping into the snowy wilderness north of Nagano for a few days, we’d gotten a sense of how Japanese country life is alive and well, but not in that quintessential, “former capital of Japan from 710 to 784” kind of way. So we headed south to Nara.

As I explained in my previous post, I knew before we arrived that there was some sort of wonderful park in Nara where friendly deer roamed freely and ate out of people’s hands. And since I’m a sucker, that’s one place I simply had to see. Turns out that Nara, while indeed very ancient, is a pretty big city these days, well-traveled, and by no means undiscovered. The hotel I had booked was a little hard to find, and once we were settled, a lot overpriced. It was already dark after a long day of train travel, and we were only in town for one night. Why did I make us come here again? I felt bad.

All was not lost, for Nara marked the first OKONOMIYAKI!!!! (emphasis mine, emphasis necessary) dinner that MG and I had. Okonomiyaki is often described as a Japanese pizza or pancake, but it’s more like a savory omelette stuffed with meat/fish/cabbage, and covered in Worcestershire-type sauce/mayonnaise, which sounds disgusting but is just the opposite. Okonomiyaki is a fatty fatty culinary delight, and also a fun word to yell at high volume over and over, preferably in a residential area.

The next morning we checked out of our hotel, stored our luggage at the front desk, and went off in search of the deer park.

The deer are not hard to find. They’re adorable. They have little mouths and tiny teeth and eat very delicately out of your hand (vendors are scattered everywhere selling rice crackers to feed the deer, which they love, though I suspect they’d eat just about anything).

They’re also really used to humans and tend to swarm you once they’ve spotted rice crackers in your hand. A couple of the dudes kept head-butting me, which might have been similar to murdering me with a trident had their antlers not been cut within the last year - apparently this happens as part of an annual festival so that the male deer don’t stab people to death over rice crackers. Instead, little furry antler stumps. Adorable.

The largest Buddha statue in JapanNara’s park is full of more than just deer; its temples are the main attraction. We picked a few to focus on, and as we made our way through hoards of tourists (it was conveniently a Saturday) I had to remind myself that that’s how these things go, we aren’t going to get Japan’s biggest Buddha statue all to ourselves, roll with it, embrace our touring peers, because here we all are, in an awesome place. And we did and it was great.

Next, MG and I hunted down the Harushika brewery for some sake tasting in a old, beautiful part of Nara. It was supposed to be 400 yen for 6 tastings, but we didn’t realize that until after we’d already tasted everything, and because of the language barrier we couldn’t seem to explain to anyone that we owed them money. So we bought a big bottle of the sake we liked the best and drank the whole thing in 24 hours. I’m calling it even.

Sake tasting in Nara

In hindsight, Nara really needs more than a day if you truly want to get a feel for the city and not rush through history. But that’s all the time we had before hopping on a local train into Osaka, and I think we did ok for our first stab (haha, get it? DEER ANTLER JOKE!) at taking in a Japan of yesteryear.

Sorry these updates are trickling in so slowly, btw. I’m drawing the whole thing out specifically to torture you. Hope that’s cool.